To examine the teaching of Nágárjuna on emptiness we must first take a look at where he was coming from. He appears to have been motivated by two primary factors. First, certain renderings of the Buddha's teachings had been proposed with which he disagreed. It is apparent now, looking back on what evidence we have of his life, that the notion of self-nature was his primary focus. It was not only the metaphysical canon of self-nature but the whole notion of it with all the far-reaching ramifications and backlashes on the Buddha's philosophy, it would call into question the rightness of the Eight Fold Path, the truthfulness of the four Noble Truths, and the possibility of Nirvana. The second reason may have either been caused by or caused the first--Nágárjuna was a devout Buddhist. For all his arguments there is no indication that Nágárjuna did not hold as his main motivation the attempt to clarify the Buddha’s teachings. Nágárjuna's religious piety and his incisive philosophy are in no way contradictory. The harmony between his faith and his intellect are expressed in the two dedication verses with which he opened the Karika:
I salute him, the fully-enlightened, the best of speakers, who preached the non-ceasing and the non-arising, the non- annihilation and the non-permanence, the non-identity and the non- difference, the non-appearance and the non-disappearance, the dependent arising, the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious. (Karika; introductory verses)
This introduction demonstrates not only that Nágárjuna's faith and intellect are not contradictory, but that they are complementary.
Scholars point out that from either the Mádhyamika thought or Nágárjuna himself developed three treatises of thought. The primary themes of Mádhyamika thought as detailed in the Karika are the denial of self-nature (svabhava), the examination of dependent arising (pratítya samutpáda), and the teaching of emptiness (sunyata). That is, in short, if no entities, circumstances, or personalities have self-nature, then they can be said to be “empty.” All three are explored at great length in the Karika, but they are not explicitly addressed on individual terms. There is, however, a separate section devoted to each of self-nature and dependent arising, but these sections barely seem to scrap the surface of the amount of information and commentary needed on these subjects to do justice to any meaningful explanation. Although these three are the very foundation on which Mádhyamika was based, Nágárjuna's studies appeared to focus mainly on dependent arising, and its implications in Buddhist doctrine.
This is not an irrelevant departure, but is important for two reasons. First, a fuller understanding of self-nature as a theory will shed light on Nágárjuna's endeavor. Second, it will demonstrate the groundwork laid for his philosophy. The two most important concepts of Nágárjuna's philosophy, dependent arising, that which has cause, and emptiness will only make sense against the backdrop of the main theory he was criticizing; that was self-nature.
It was his unique interpretation of dependent arising that provided the means by which Nágárjuna so powerfully refuted the then-popular idea of self-nature. As he was interpreting dependent arising to exclude self-nature, Nágárjuna emphasized emptiness, the concept for which he was most famous. If no entities, circumstances, or personalities have self-nature, then they are “empty.”
Early Buddhist schools saw dependent arising as the mutual conditioning of interrelated events or experiences. The Mádhyamika School gave an entirely new twist to dependent arising. They believed things are not explained by ceasing and arising, but are characterized as non-ceasing and non-arising. “Neither is the dharma body characterized by existence or non-existence, because it has emptiness as its essence” (Keenan 55). Seen this way, we could accurately call Nágárjuna's theory “non-dependent non-arising.” As things arise dependently, they cannot have any real temporal location; that is, they cannot be disconnected from otherness. They cannot be annihilated, for they were never really originated in the first place. Nor can they be permanent, for this would require that they have self-nature, an assertion that does not withstand Nágárjuna’s logic. So you see, the perceiving and conceptual experiences of the individual are made possible by the non-appearance and non-disappearance of things.
There are few references to self-nature to be found in the early Buddhist writings. This is not because the Buddha was unaware of, or was ignoring the issue, but because he saw self-nature as included in the larger issue of selfhood (atman), opposite of selflessness (anatman) as a whole. About this, he had very clear teachings (Huntington 37).
However, and this is crucial, the Buddha also taught that one must not conceive of the self as non-existent. He clearly stated that there is no self, but he did not intend for this to be interpreted as a negation of something that once existed.
The Buddha was careful not to be too adamant about either side. Saying that there is a self would lead people to interpret him as being eternalist; the moral result of eternalism is selfishness and, ultimately, excessive desires. The self, is so defined, suggests separateness to other selves, this cannot be the case if dependent arising is to stand up to criticism. Saying that there is no self would lead people to interpret him as being annihilationist; the moral result of annihilationism is a state of distress over losing that which one believes one now has (a form of identity) and, further, annihilationism would undermine moral accountability.
A few hundred years after the Buddha's death some scholars undertook the task of re-explaining his teachings of selflessness (anatman). The result was the Abhidharma, a classificatory breakdown of human experience into physical elements, sense-faculties, and the aggregates comprising the individual experiences. With this process of analysis, two old pre-Buddhist theories crept back in: self-nature, and other-nature (parabhava). It was in response to these insidious heresies that Nágárjuna formulated his contradiction to them.
Nágárjuna's position was that, if these schools understood dependent arising in the right way, they would not have been led to hold such beliefs. Nágárjuna's attitude towards self-nature is wholly explained by one fact: the theory of dependent arising necessarily upholds the Buddha's doctrine of selflessness (anatman); selflessness can never be compatible with self-nature.
There are two main formulations of dependent arising, one general and the other specific. In its most abstract form, the theory holds that “That being, this comes to be; from the arising of that, this arises; that being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this ceases” (Samyutta-nikaya, quoted in Harvey 54). The more specific formulation details the process by which links in the chain arise, one after the other, and which links directly influence which others. There is a mutual interdependence of all things. Every entity is both conditioned and a conditioner; every entity is both an effect and a cause.
Since no thing exists on its own, no thing is truly identifiable by itself. A thing, if you must call it that, is dependent on another, then, not just for its identification. As ‘tallness’ is dependent on ‘shortness’ for its existence, so too is the piece of clothing is dependent upon the threads which constitute it. You cannot have an experience without senses to tell you it was an experience. You cannot have sense reaction without something for them to react to, etc.
The result of this interpretation of dependent arising is that the elements are “empty;” as dependently arisen, they are not with or without self-nature.
However, while in the past this interpretation of dependent arising was ubiquitous but practical, Nágárjuna reformed it and organized its implications. Nágárjuna's interpretation of dependent arising was unlike that of the Buddhism that preceded him.
Nágárjuna's interpretation of dependent arising focused on the nature of each element on its own. He found that nothing can be conceptualized alone, but neither can it be conceptualized in association with anything else. Things can be neither identical nor different. Yet, the concept of relation requires that they be both identical and different.
The main complication in thinking of things as independent is self- nature. Anything that is dependently arisen, Nágárjuna said, must be without self-nature, incapable of being isolated and, ultimately, not even real: empty (Huntington 39-40).
Though Nirvana is said to be “empty,” this apparently negative term is actually the foundation for the most positive of descriptions. Seeing Nirvana as a goal, or as a change in state is a false philosophy and a form of grasping, therefore preventing enlightenment. To preclude this possibility, Nágárjuna proclaimed what could perhaps be the most controversial verse in the Karika: “The life-process (samsara) has no thing that distinguishes it Nirvana. Nirvana has no thing that distinguishes it from the samsara” (Karika XXV, 19).
Nágárjuna's attitude towards identity and difference must be kept in mind to prevent a misunderstanding of this assertion. “One who is in harmony with emptiness is on harmony with all things” (Madhymakasástra of Nágárjuna, 24.14ab, quoted in Huntington 55). In saying that they are identical, he is not saying that they have an identity-relation, neither one has an essence which can relate. To present this argument at all brings into the field a duality problem. If you try to explain Nirvana and Samsara as two somethings that are connected or not, you have shot yourself in the proverbial foot. Nágárjuna saw this problem coming. His reaction to this relation was made clear in the discussion of the nature of the Buddha in section twenty-two of the Karika. “Whatever is the self-nature of the Tathagata, that is also the self-nature of the universe,” Nágárjuna says. The two are equal because and only because “the Tathagata is devoid of self-nature. This universe is also devoid of self-nature” (Karika XXII.16). That is, the universe has emptiness.
The notion of emptiness may, at first, seem negative and limiting. It seems to deny the cosmos the option of having existence; reality is now in question (Keenan, 62). When comprehended properly, though, the paradox of emptiness is seen as the most liberating of all possible teachings. In teaching that the self is empty and that the universe is empty, it demonstrates that both are one and the same, and that their distinction was based on nothing more than obscured understanding. The limitations caused by the notion of self-hood are destroyed. The true nature of the enlightened one is seen to be the true nature of the universe, for both are empty. In enlightenment, one is empty; one becomes the universe.
According to the Heart Sutra, “there is no birth, and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity … Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind,” and so on. The absence of these things is emptiness. It is not their absence that is important to understand, as much as it is their emptiness. In order to have an empty glass; one must first have a glass. It is the distinctive absence of distractions that is emptiness.
The Heart Sutra lists groups of non-duality to illustrate the reality character of all Dharmas—emptiness. The phenomenon of one’s nature is neither rising nor falling; it’s neither beginning nor ceasing. The spirit of the term emptiness is its nature of having no character which is definable within itself, “it is the unchangeable mind” (Keenan 19-21). To become enlightened is to lift the difficult veil of language and become conscious of emptiness as not being nothing, it is the condition of the being everything.
Second question: Tathágata-garbha
The spirit of the term emptiness suggests there is no thing that is definable within itself. Using the term ‘thing’ to shortly describe what emptiness is begs the question ‘what is real?’ What is the thing that has no definable selfness? In an attempt to tackle the question ‘what is real?’ the Buddhist scholars were able to use the Tathágata-garbha proponents (Keenan 19). Its tradition is expressed in a number of famed Maháyána texts--the Anúnatvápúrnatvanirdesa sútra, the Tathágata-garbha sútra, the Srïmáládevïsimhanáda sútra, and the Ratnagotravibhága; it finds its way into a number of Yogácára writings also. Its objection to an all-inclusive emptiness is not, however, theoretical, and its affirmation of the non-empty, really existent Tathágata seed (garbha), essence, or nature (dhátu) is not meant as a philosophic alternative to emptiness (Keenan 19). The problem with Tathágata-garbha is the shift in understanding it demands from the interpretation of the unchangeable mind.
This idea of the unchangeable mind is in line with the Tathágata-garbha tradition; however, it is in contrast with the doctrine of anatman (selflessness) taught by early Buddhists. Although the doctrine of the innately pure mind, whether you call it Tathágata-garbha or Buddhist Nature, is problematic in Buddhist terms, it does provide a positive and optimistic view of the human potential for awakening.
The Tathágata-garbha embraces the nature of all beings. Every being differs from every other being, thus constituting differences within what is without difference. So, the natures of every being, unchanging and timeless, contain qualities that are boundless, immeasurable, connected and unconnected or unchanging. This is emptiness. For Tathágata-garbha, all one needs is the practice to eliminate the adventitious defilements, and pure awakening will occur. Emptiness is restricted quantitatively to defilements, for the pure seed is empty of the defilements, but not empty of the Buddhist qualities that are one with the originally pure mind (Keenan 19-21). But, like I said, context of meaning differ.
If the mind is originally pure, as was suggested, how do defilements occur? It is hardly enough to claim they are accidents, for defilements characterize existence (the Five Aggregates). So, where do they come from? “What is the value of Buddha’s teaching then? Did he speak only in Metaphor? How does one arrive at truth? Simply by faith in a pure mind that is not at all evident in everyday life?” Argues Keenan (21).
From within the Tathágata circles now emerge more scholars to define how to think about defilements and their relation to original Buddhist doctrine. Everyday consciousness, its structure and functioning, and the way it converts to defilements, is a difference from the original teachings. In Keenan’s book, Dharmapála’s Yogácára Critique of Bhaváviveka’s Mádhyamika Explanation of Emptiness, he says that the sophists to approach this problem head on were the Yogácára.
The Yogácára thinker’s goal was to develop a critical context for meaning from the two doctrines. “To them the affirmation of an existent essence or inner seed of Buddhahood seems to reaffirm the existence of a substantial entity beyond the sphere of emptiness” (Matsumoto; quoted in Keenan). And this is unacceptable indeed. They venture to sketch a critical theory of consciousness, with the assertion that the very consciousness that engenders the notion of emptiness does not exist, not independently but in an other-dependent fashion. That which is real is the other-dependent pattern of consciousness (paratantrasvabháva). Indeed, “in the history of Maháyána thinking, the most crucial arguments occur not over issues within a shared context of meaning, but precisely over shifts in that context itself” (Keenan 19-21). As one paradigm said to another: shift happens.
 The question of order for Mádhyamika and Nágárjuna’s doctrine read like a western “chicken or egg” argument, although most information points to Madhyamika doctrine influencing Nágárjuna’s beginning thought (Huntington; 32-67).